Except she wasn’t.
In 2001, at age 25, Felder learned that she had cervical cancer. She needed a hysterectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. And she was left unable to bear children.
“I didn’t want to lose my womb. I didn’t want to lose my fertility. But I was tossed into this world of cancer,” said Felder, now 35 and a television producer living in Upper Marlboro. “It changes you in such a profound way. You have to rebuild your whole life.”
Each year, about 12,000 U.S. women receive diagnoses of cervical cancer and 4,000 women die of the disease. Yet doctors view cervical cancer as a disease that can easily be prevented and treated. Precancerous lesions and early cancer are easily detected through Pap smears; lesions can be removed in a minimally invasive procedure before they turn into cancer. And since 2006 there has been a vaccine against human papillomavirus, or HPV, the sexually transmitted virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer.
But Felder’s case is a good example of why this disease remains a threat. Too often, doctors and public-health experts say, women who don’t get regular screenings — because they don’t have health insurance or for other reasons — discover the problem when the disease has already progressed.
“In most cases, women who get cervical cancer in this country are those who did not get a Pap smear,” said Robert Hilgers, a gynecologic oncologist in Kentucky, one of the states with the highest incidence of cervical cancer. (The District also has a relatively high rate.) “I have been here — in all aspects of this disease — having cared for over 1,000 women with cancer of the cervix, and don’t want to see another woman die of this disease.”
Hilgers and other doctors say cervical cancer is highly correlated with poverty and a lack of health insurance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites disproportionate levels of cervical cancer among the uninsured and underinsured.
For instance, in the Appalachian region of Kentucky, where the poverty rate was 24.5 percent in 2005-2009 — compared with the national rate of 13.5 percent — women get cervical cancer at a rate that is one-third higher than the national rate, and they die at a rate that is 37 percent higher, according to statistics from the Kentucky cancer registry and the National Cancer Institute.
Hilgers and others say they believe income disparity, and the resulting disparity in access to health insurance and health care, contribute to an elevated death rate from cervical cancer in African American women. According to statistics from the National Cancer Institute, African American women died of cervical cancer at a rate of 4.4 per 100,000 vs. 2.2 per 100,000 for white women.